UK Spies Incited Mass Murder of Indonesia’s Communists, An Exposure

Newly declassified papers show murderous role played by Britain in the mass slaughter

A Journal of People report

An alleged communist is questioned under gunpoint by Indonesian soldiers in 1965. (University of Melbourne)

The Indonesian Army’s brutal crackdown on the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI) in 1965 and 1966 is considered to be one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century. Between 500,000 and three million supporters of the PKI were slaughtered, according to various estimations. It was genocide.

Declassified papers reveal that UK propaganda campaign incited this mass slaughter of communists in Indonesia.

President Sukarno was arrested in 1967 and died three years later under house arrest.

He was overthrown by General Suharto, who had been leading the Indonesian Army. Suharto then ruled Indonesia until 1998, enjoying political and economic support from the West. Transparency International labeled him the most corrupt politician in modern history in 2004, claiming that he embezzled between $15 billion and $35 billion during his time in office.

The campaign of apparently spontaneous mass murder, now known to have been orchestrated by the Indonesian army, was later described by the CIA as one of the worst mass murders of the century.

Tari Lang, then a teenager in Indonesia whose father and mother, the late human rights activist Carmel Budiardjo, were imprisoned by the army, says the documents are “horrendous” and the British government bears some responsibility for what happened. “I am angry that my government, the British government, did this. The British did nothing to stop the violence once it had started.”

According to Professor Scott Lucas, the declassified documents “show how central IRD (the UK Foreign Office’s Information Research Department) and black propaganda continued to be” in postwar British foreign policy and in its overseas operations. “This was a relatively inexpensive way for Britain to project influence even if that influence can’t be openly admitted.”

Documents that were declassified in the U.S. in 2017 revealed that Washington also not only had “detailed knowledge” of the massacre of communists in Indonesia, but provided “active support” for those actions.

A Yale University study described the slaughter ordered by Suharto as an “absolutely essential cleaning out,” detailing the killing of from “50 to 100 PKI members” every night by civilian anti-communist groups with the “blessing” of the military.

Cut Out

Reports in The Guardian (including Revealed: how UK spies incited mass murder of Indonesia’s communists, by Dr Paul Lashmar, investigative journalist and reader in journalism at City, University of London, Nicholas Gilby, campaigns investigator and author of a history of bribery and Britain’s arms trade, and James Oliver , Emmy-winning BBC producer and director and leader of the recent Pandora Papers investigation for BBC Panorama ) said:

British spies played a part in the PKI members in the 1960s, urging locals, including army generals, to “cut out” the “communist cancer,” declassified papers have revealed.

Declassified UK Foreign Office documents, which were recently released by Britain’s National Archives and seen by The Guardian newspaper, indicate that the UK is not without fault in those shocking events.

The British Foreign Office had always denied the country’s involvement in the brutal clampdown on those blamed of communist links in Indonesia.

It turns out that UK focused its propaganda machine on the founding Indonesian President Sukarno and his communist backers over Sukarno’s stern opposition to the Federation of Malaya, which the UK thought should unite its former colonies in the region.

Britain launched the propaganda offensive against Indonesia in response to President Sukarno’s hostility to the formation of its former colonies into the Malayan federation which from 1963 resulted in a low-level conflict and armed incursions by the Indonesian army across the border. The PKI was a strong supporter of both the president and the Confrontation movement.

Singapore

Tensions between the PKI and the Indonesian military had been mounting since the early 1960s, with the president struggling to balance the rivaling forces. The army-sponsored massacre of communists began after a failed coup attempt by the supporters of Sukarno within the army ranks on October 1, 1965.

Undermine Sukarno

Several months before that, a team of specialists from the IRD had already been deployed in Singapore to produce black propaganda to undermine Sukarno’s rule, according to The Guardian.

The failed coup only made it easier for the propagandists to influence their intended audience, which included anti-communist politicians and Indonesian army generals.

A Radio Station

The propaganda was shared through an Indonesian-language newsletter, which was said to have been the work of Indonesian immigrants, but was actually issued by British specialists in Singapore. Within a year, some 28,000 copies of the newsletter had been published. The UK also funded a radio station, which Malaysians had been broadcasting into Indonesia.

Eliminate

Shortly after the massacre of the communists by the military began, the British-produced newsletter called for “the PKI and all communist organizations” to “be eliminated.” It claimed that Indonesia will remain in peril “as long as the communist leaders are at large and their rank and file are allowed to go unpunished.” “Procrastination and half-hearted measures can only lead to … our ultimate and complete destruction,” the pamphlet warned.

The killings allegedly intensified across the Indonesian archipelago in the weeks following the publication of the newsletter, with The Guardian insisting that “there can be little doubt that British diplomats became aware of what was happening.”

Excellent Job

The UK spies in the region had all the means to intercept Indonesian government communications and monitor the movement of its military, according to The Guardian.

One of the newsletters, released during the clampdown on the communists, had praised “the fighting services and the police” for “doing an excellent job.”

The British propagandists compared the PKI to Adolf Hitler and Genghis Khan in the pamphlet, and insisted that “the work started by the army must be carried on and intensified.”

Minimal Cost

The Foreign Office experts and Indonesian generals were “singing in harmony,” Norman Reddaway, a Foreign Office propaganda specialist, insisted in another declassified document. He also celebrated the British propaganda for being able to abolish Sukarno’s opposition to the Federation of Malaya project at “minimal cost” and within just half-a-year.

By mid-1965 the operation was in full swing, but an attempted coup by leftwing army officers and, secretly, by agents of the PKI, in which seven generals were murdered, provided the chance to have a real impact on events.

The coup was swiftly crushed by Indonesia’s future president General Suharto, who then set about a gradual seizure of power from Sukarno and the elimination of the PKI, then the biggest communist party in the non-communist world.

Over the following weeks massacres of alleged PKI members, few if any with any involvement in the attempted coup, and other leftists spread across the archipelago.

Not only could GCHQ intercept and read Indonesian government communications, but its Chai Keng monitoring station in Singapore enabled the British to trace the progress of army units involved in suppressing the PKI.

According to Dr Duncan Campbell, an investigative journalist and expert on GCHQ, they had technology enabling listeners to “locate the positions of Indonesian military commanders and units who were sending, relaying and receiving orders for the roundup and murder of those supposedly linked to the PKI”.

A letter to the British ambassador in Djakarta from the “coordinator of political warfare”, Reddaway, who arrived in Singapore in the aftermath of the attempted coup, reveals the policy was “to conceal the fact that the butcheries have taken place with the encouragement of the generals”, in the hope that the generals “will do us better than the old gang”.

Reddaway considered the downfall of Sukarno to be one of Britain’s greatest propaganda victories. In a letter written years later he said “the discrediting of Sukarno was quickly successful. His “Konfrontasi”, or Confrontation, was an undeclared war that included military incursions over the border into East Malaysia. Sukarno, like many Indonesians, including the PKI, believed the creation of a Malaysian federation was unwarranted regional interference by the British to maintain their colonial dominance. The Konfrontasi was costing us about £250,000,000 a year. It was countered and abolished at minimal cost by IRD research and techniques in six months.”

A Top Secret Operation

Another Oct. 17 report by The Guardian (Slaughter in Indonesia: Britain’s secret propaganda war, by Dr Paul Lashmar, Nicholas Gilby, James Oliver) described:

In early 1965 Ed Wynne, an official from the Foreign Office in London in his late 40s, arrived at the door of a two-storey villa set in the discreet calm of a genteel housing estate in colonial Singapore.

But Wynne was no ordinary official. A specialist from the Foreign Office’s cold war propaganda arm, the Information Research Department (IRD), he had been assigned to lead a small team. A junior official, four local people and two “IRD ladies”, seconded to the unit from London, would join him.

The arrival of Wynne and his colleagues in the Winchester Road cul-de-sac marked the beginning of what would later be claimed, by those who led it, as one of the most successful propaganda operations in postwar British history. A top secret operation that helped overthrow the leader of the fourth most populous country in the world and contributed to the mass murder of its citizens.

The proof of Britain’s role in inciting what the CIA later described as “one of the worst mass murders of the 20th century” lies in another leafy suburb. In declassified Foreign Office documents – held far beyond the 20-year rule – in Kew in London.

The outcome of the turmoil was a brutal and corrupt 32-year military dictatorship whose legacy shapes Indonesia to this day.

Two years earlier, in response to British plans to create an independent state of Malaysia out of its colonial possessions, left-leaning President Sukarno launched Konfrontasi.

The British were forced to dedicate huge military and intelligence resources to help the emergent Malaysia counter the Konfrontasi.

British policy was to bring an end to the conflict. But the UK’s objectives did not end there.

Like its US and Australian allies, Britain feared a communist Indonesia. The PKI had three million members and was close to Mao’s China. In Washington the fall of the Indonesia “domino” into the communist camp was seen as a greater threat than the potential loss of Vietnam.

Increasingly Sukarno’s non-aligned nationalism, anti-colonialism and growing ties to China were viewed as a threat, one that would be lessened if the president and his foreign minister Subandrio were removed from their posts and the PKI’s influence in Indonesia diminished – most plausibly through the actions of the largely anti-communist Indonesian army.

In mid-1965 the opportunity arrived. A secret leftwing group, later called the “30 September movement”, coalesced in Indonesia, convinced, with some justification, that the army was planning to overthrow Sukarno and suppress the PKI.


On the night of 30 September leftist officers associated with the movement, under the command of Lt-Col Untung of the presidential guard, supported by a handful of battalions, attempted a pre-emptive strike against the army’s high command.

They tried to seize seven of the Indonesian army’s most senior generals. Three, including the commander of the army, were killed. Another three were murdered at the Indonesian air force base where they had been taken. The bodies of the murdered generals were tossed into a well.

The defence minister, Gen Nasution, escaped. His six-year-old daughter and his aide were murdered.

But by the evening of 1 October the commander of the army’s main combat unit, Gen Suharto, had taken command of the army and was mounting a counterattack that within three days completely neutralised the poorly organised rebellion.

While it is now believed that the PKI’s chairman and his agents were involved in the attempted coup, there is no credible evidence that Sukarno knew about it beforehand, or that the PKI as an organisation or its mass membership were responsible for it.

But the bloodshed did not end there. Suharto, appointed supreme army commander on 14 October, used the rebellion to undermine and eventually overthrow Sukarno, and as what historian John Roosa has called a “pretext for mass murder”: the elimination of the PKI in a series of massacres across Indonesia that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of people.

The Foreign Office had always denied Britain was involved in the violence that was then unleashed on alleged communists. But these revelations show British intelligence agencies and propaganda specialists were complicit, carrying out covert operations to undermine Sukarno’s regime and eliminate the PKI by blaming them for the Untung coup.


Britain’s propaganda “stiletto” was wielded by Ed Wynne, the specialist sent to Singapore by the Foreign Office’s IRD. IRD had been set up by the 1945 Labour government to counter Soviet propaganda attacks on Britain and produce anti-communist material of its own. It was closely linked to MI6 and its activities mirrored the CIA’s cold war propaganda operations.

The blandly named South East Asia Monitoring Unit, or Seamu, was set up at the suggestion of the British ambassador to Indonesia, Sir Andrew Gilchrist, whose embassy in Jakarta had been burned down by PKI protesters in 1963.

Although limited tactical “psywar measures” against Indonesian troops were in place, by 1964 ideas were being “canvassed” to undermine “the Sukarno/Subandrio regime” and so end confrontation. What Gilchrist wanted and what became the unit’s mission was the production of black propaganda, apparently produced by patriotic Indonesian émigrés abroad, to stir Indonesian anti-communists into action.

The influential targets of a propaganda newsletter, according to a declassified report by Wynne, would eventually include “as many personages in the hierarchy of government, army and civil service as we can find”.

To disguise the British origin of the newsletter it was sent into Indonesia via Asian cities including Hong Kong, Tokyo and Manila.

Within a year 28,000 copies of the newsletter, written in Indonesian and called Kenjataan2 (Facts 2), had been sent and were, according to Wynne, reaching the minister of defence, “other generals, newspapers on the right side and even President Sukarno himself”.

By the end of September 1965 Wynne’s operation was “in full swing” and ready to take full advantage of the failed Untung coup.

It was the moment the British had been waiting for. As one Foreign Office official commented: “A premature PKI coup may be the most helpful solution for the west – provided the coup failed.”

The unit sprang into action with radio broadcasts and the production of a special issue of the newsletter, now finally disclosed at Kew more than 66 years after the events it was designed to influence.

It starts with a nod towards moderation, but it is a virulent call to arms designed to inflame and encourage the destruction of the PKI.

Young Indonesian Nationalists Carrying Bamboo WeaponsCarrying bamboo spears and hatchets, a group of Indonesian nationalists accompany an Indonesian army patrol in the search for communist sympathisers. Photograph: Bettmann Archive

“No, we do not cry out for violence,” the IRD propagandists wrote, “but we demand in the name of all patriotic people that this communist cancer be cut out of the body of the state.” The PKI “is now a wounded snake”, they wrote: “Now is the time to kill it before it has a chance to recover.”

And IRD’s incendiary newsletter was sent at the key moment as the success of Suharto’s bid for power and the army’s operations against the PKI hung in the balance.

Detailed historical research has established that the mass killings of PKI party members and alleged supporters appear to have been triggered by local army commanders or the arrival of army special forces, about three weeks after the botched coup had been put down by Suharto.

During that period the media in Indonesia was full of black propaganda against the PKI and its alleged atrocities, as the army whipped up popular anger against communists and legitimised what Roosa has described as its “already-planned moves against the PKI and President Sukarno”.

The “special issue” and other inflammatory newsletters in the series were sent to about 1,500 recipients. A Seamu report notes intelligence that readers “were influenced in the required direction”.

The newsletters were approved by IRD in London before dispatch. Copies sent to senior Foreign Office officials were destroyed after reading at IRD’s request.

Carmel Budiardjo

Tari Lang was living in Indonesia at the time with her father and mother, the late human rights campaigner, Carmel Budiardjo, then working as a translator and economic analyst.

“Anyone who was leftist was picked up. They were very systematic. They targeted all the leftist groups and not just PKI. People kept themselves to themselves and only talked in whispers.”

Tari’s parents were imprisoned, her mother freed three years later with the help of the Foreign Office.

Carmel, Anto, Tari and Suwando BudiardjoCarmel Budiardjo with her children, Anto and Tari, and husband Suwando. Both parents were imprisoned

As the massacres progressed in the autumn of 1965, IRD’s unit in Singapore reassured their readers as to the necessity of the slaughter.

In Newsletter 21 they wrote: “Unless we maintain a vigorous campaign to eradicate communism … the red menace will envelop us again.”

The stakes were life and death. “We are fighting for our lives and the very existence of Indonesia and we must never forget that. THE CATS ARE WAITING TO POUNCE!”

In Newsletter 23 Winchester Road’s propagandists praised “the fighting services and the police” for “doing an excellent job”. Sukarno, then trying to restrain the generals, was wrong: “Communism must be abolished in all its forms. The work started by the army must be carried on and intensified.” The authors finished by equating the PKI to Hitler and Genghis Khan.


The attempted coup and its aftermath coincided with the arrival in Singapore of one of the Foreign Office’s leading propagandists. Gilchrist thought that Britain’s expanding propaganda effort was not enough. He asked for Norman Reddaway to be sent as “coordinator of political warfare” against Indonesia with the support of the chief of the defence staff, Lord Louis Mountbatten.

Reddaway had served in the army during the Second World War before joining the Foreign Office and playing a key role in the establishment of IRD. After the failed Untung coup he arrived to take charge of the British operation. His brief was simple. In an interview in 1996 with two of the authors, he said he had been given a budget of £100,000 by the Foreign Office and was told “to do anything I could do to get rid of Sukarno”. Only now do we know what “anything” fully meant.

A secret assessment of IRD operations by Reddaway, written to the head of IRD in July 1966, after Sukarno was effectively removed from power, is in the National Archives. Reddaway claimed that his unattributable briefings to the press were effective in moving global opinion and the propaganda operation was a great success.

“The news machine was our bludgeon: the newsletter and our unorthodox operations our stiletto,” he said.

In another released document he reported that IRD and the generals were “singing in harmony”.

Former Foreign Office official Derek Tonkin, who was the London desk officer for Indonesia from 1963 to 1966, said last month he had not seen the propaganda newsletters as he was too junior, but that in those early days after the 30 September attempted coup, no one could possibly have foreseen what a bloodbath would ensue.

But, he admits, “it might not be easy to escape the charge that Britain initially helped in some small measure to instigate the demise of the PKI in what was to be a very ghastly manner”.

As for Reddaway, according to Tonkin, “he was a bit of a loose cannon and like many propagandists was perhaps overcommitted to his mandate”. Reddaway and his team were “rather a law unto themselves, but the FO knew that he would be when they appointed him”.

In the 1996 interviews Reddaway boasted of manipulating the British and other global media to take an anti- Sukarno and PKI line but insisted IRD only passed on true facts and did not use black propaganda.

As ever with IRD, Reddaway told us a partial truth. According to a memo he had written: “The bludgeon was surprisingly effective because we were able … to supply publicists with information which they could not find from other sources because of Sukarno’s censorship.”

Reddaway identified the most useful recipients of his output as the news agencies, “less choosy about their fare and they are more anonymous”, and radio men: the BBC’s World Service and Indonesian Service in particular. One of Reddaway’s main sources was, naturally, the British ambassador in Jakarta, Gilchrist, with whom he exchanged a weekly update throughout the period.

In July 1966, in one letter to Gilchrist, Reddaway celebrated that it was “the first time in history that an ambassador had been able to address the people of his country of work almost at will and virtually instantaneously”.

To feed the operation Reddaway was also drawing upon signals intelligence, or Sigint.

He was in an excellent position to do so. Singapore was the location of a GCHQ monitoring site.


According to Dr Duncan Campbell, the investigative journalist and expert on GCHQ, the organisation’s Singapore monitoring site, RAF Chia Keng, was hidden behind and within a larger RAF communications station on Yio Chu Kang Road in eastern Singapore, now a housing estate. GCHQ’s high security listening “bungalows” had opaque glass brick windows that hid about 50 civilian staff on each shift. The base was perfectly located quickly to get full and direct reports about developments in Indonesia. According to Campbell, “GCHQ could break and read Indonesian codes without difficulty. The government was among many third world countries using equipment supplied by Swiss-based company Crypto AG. For over 50 years, Crypto AG supplied secretly sabotaged cypher machines, with built-in back doors to which the CIA and GCHQ had keys.”

A revealing memorandum, dated 30 October 1965, from Reddaway to Brian Tovey, later director of GCHQ, then on posting to Singapore, highlighted the contribution which Sigint could make. Reddaway told his colleague the GCHQ material can “help the generals to persecute the PKI more effectively”.

The newsletters remained the core work of Ed Wynne and his colleagues in Winchester Road. A key theme was to encourage their influential readers to support the army’s campaign against the communists. They urged Indonesian patriots: “The PKI and all it stands for must be eliminated for all time.”

We now know that to do that they included sensationalised lies. On 5 November the pro-military Jakarta Daily Mail claimed that on the day of the Untung coup 100 women from PKI’s Gerwani women’s organisation had tortured one of the generals using razor blades and knives to slash his genitals before he was shot.

The story of the torture and mutilation of the generals by the Gerwani women became part of the founding myth of Suharto’s regime, used to justify the destruction of the PKI. It was also, according to Roosa, a pretext for murder. A lie propagated by the Indonesian army, regurgitated and repurposed to incite IRD’s influential readers.

The army’s propaganda story was recycled back into Indonesia in January 1966 in Newsletter 23 with a report on allegations made by two PKI members interrogated by the army. One linked Sukarno’s foreign minister Subandrio to the construction of a “torture room” for the use of PKI prisoners, the other, referencing the Jakarta Daily Mail, a member of the PKI’s women’s organisation, the Gerwani, “one of those ‘honoured’ with the task of mutilating the generals”.

The 15-year-old girl was reported to have said, “Our platoon leader ordered us to beat the prisoner and then cut his private parts with the small knives.”

Tari Lang, Carmel Budiardjo’s daughter, was also 15 at the time.

“These newsletters are horrendous. If you had not told me who had written them I would have thought it was Indonesians. It is quite unbelievable that they did this.

“There were Gerwani women in my mother’s social circle and they were like members of the Women’s Institute. Very gentle.”

The IRD was deliberately silent on the massacres. One document from December 1965 says they should “do nothing to embarrass the generals” and the newsletter carefully itemises accounts of isolated incidents of PKI brutality but makes no explicit mention of the army’s killings.

In fact the policy went further. In Seamu’s report for 1965 Wynne wrote that they had used the newsletter for “continued attacks on the guilty men … and indirect support for the clean up and control by the generals”. The generals, Wynne noted, “we treat gently”.

By early 1966 the mass murders in Indonesia, if not their scale, were well known.

In January Robert F Kennedy compared the massacres to “inhuman slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis and the communists” and asked when people would “speak out … against the inhuman slaughter in Indonesia, where over 100,000 alleged communists have not been perpetrators, but victims?”

By February, dismissing the idea of “advertising the blood-bath” as reducing the chances of “getting a new management in Indonesia”, Reddaway observed, “I am delighted that a good number of communists have been disposed of, but their killers are predominantly military and Muslim.”

On 11 March, 1966, President Sukarno was forced to hand over power to Gen Suharto, and the end of Confrontation was in sight.

On 14 March, Reddaway wrote to Gilchrist: “I cannot see how in the short term things could have gone any better during the last 10 days.

“I know that the Indonesians under their new management are not going to be easy bedfellows, but I cannot avoid a little (unattributable) Te Deum over the change in the situation between 29 September and 12 March,” he wrote.

Wynne regarded the operation as a success. In his 1966 annual report he proudly says his operation was “fairly successful” because all his enemies (Konfrontasi, Sukarno, Subandrio and the PKI) were “destroyed”. His memory of these tragic events was one of “excitements”.

According to Prof Scott Lucas of the University of Birmingham, the declassified documents show that: “Britain was prepared to engage in dirty deeds which ran contrary to its purported values.” They reveal, he says, “how important black propaganda was to give the illusion that Britain could wield global power – even if many people might be killed for that illusion”.

Indonesia still fighting ghosts of communism

Another report by The Guardian said on Oct. 1, 2017:

Beware the evil communists, warn fearful hoax messages spreading on WhatsApp. Should people come to your village offering free blood tests, they are really trying to infect you with HIV.

In some circles in Indonesia it is like the cold war never ended. Even the military is on board with a paranoid campaign against the old red peril.

This month the Indonesian army announced the Suharto-era propaganda film Pengkhianatan G30S/PKI, or “Betrayal of the Communists”, would be screened across the country.

In the lead-up to 30 September, the anniversary of a failed 1965 coup that was blamed on Indonesia’s then communist party, the army said the screenings were crucial to ensure people understood the “correct” version of history.

The epic 1984 propaganda film, which depicts communists as violent savages, is being played in villages, mosques and to the military. During the Suharto era it was mandatory viewing – aired on state television every 30 September until his downfall in 1998.

As part of this latest offensive the military has also issued an internal memo to its troops to restrict screenings of Joshua Oppenheimer’s 2014 documentary film The Look of Silence. That film depicts a rather different version of events – one that explores the violence of the Indonesian state.

According to historians, in 1965-1966 Islamic youth and paramilitary groups with military backing massacred suspected communists across the country.

More than half a century later that bloody purge remains deeply sensitive. No one has ever been held to account. It is why the military is attempting to limit Oppenheimer’s film, and why the ghosts of communism continue to be dredged up even though the ideology has been outlawed here since 1966.

“It is this peculiar situation in that communism has been exterminated, has been extinct in Indonesia since 1965, and yet it is a country in which communism never really died,” says Oppenheimer of recent events. “They are stuck in evoking or conjuring the spectre of communism to keep people silent and afraid.”

Back in 1965, a time when the “domino theory” on the global spread of communism loomed large, PKI was the third-largest of its kind in the world. This time 52 years ago, a group calling themselves the 30th September Movement kidnapped and murdered six generals. Blamed on the communists, the event led to the rise of Indonesia’s strongman ruler Suharto and the mass bloodletting that ensued.

Each year there are incidents that expose Indonesia’s ongoing communist phobia – the arrest, for example, of unaware tourists detained for wearing T-shirts with the hammer and sickle logo.

But the anti-communist paranoia has surged significantly in the past month. Behind it, say analysts, is the military jockeying for political gain in the lead up to the 2019 presidential election.

“The military always tries to paint themselves as politically neutral,” explains Yohanes Sulaiman, a lecturer at General Achmad Yani University in Bandung of the decision to run the public screenings. “But now you have the head of the military basically politicising everything.”

The public screenings this year have also coincided with attacks against purported communists. In the past month a planned seminar about 1965 at Jakarta’s Legal Aid Institute was met with violent protests by hardliners and rent-a-thugs. This week a group established to collect and share stories from 1965 was branded “communist” on social media sites.

And at a rally in the capital on Friday thousands of protestors gathered at the gates of the parliament to decry a “communist revival”.

Evoking the threat of threat of communism to instill fear has proven very effective in Indonesia in the past, notes Yosef Djakababa, a history lecturer and director of the Centre for Southeast Asian Studies Indonesia.

“It forces citizens to seek protection from an institution that can be seen as capable of protecting them,” he argues. “In the past it was the military that has proven, through this narrative, that they are ones that are able to protect the country from communism.”

In Indonesia communist ties are still a kind of political kryptonite. A smear campaign that falsely branded then-candidate Joko Widodo as a communist and ethnic Chinese almost cost him the 2014 presidential election.

Last year a government-organised symposium on the events of 1965 gave some hope the government might finally be ready to face its ugly past. But the momentum to officially acknowledge past rights abuses appears to have lost steam.

Even when in recent weeks the president suggested the Suharto-era propaganda film be “updated” for millennials, he was quickly shot down. His coordinating security minister quickly clarified, saying the president did not mean the film’s overall message, the anti-communist narrative, should be changed.

In any case it seems most Indonesian millennials – who have not been forced to watch the film every year – don’t think about communism much at all. Judging by his students, lecturer Djakababa says many in his class can’t understand why people would “kill each other over ideas”.

“They can understand that people can kill each other if they fight over resources, like oil for example, energy,” he says, “But for ideology, communism. What is communism?”

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